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Prof. John Howkins wrote in the Australian,"The Chinese are always conscious of rank and position. One hesitates to say class, but it's the right word. Everything has its place, and knowing one's place produces the much-loved harmony. But creativity thrives by being different, and art weaves its magic by being shocking and disruptive." [Source: The Australian July 28, 2008]

Confucianism is credited with making Chinese society fiercely patriarchal and defining its social stratification with: 1) scholar-bureaucrats at the top, because they had the knowledge and wisdom to maintain social order; followed by 2) farmers, because they produced the necessary goods; and 3) the artisans, because they possessed necessary skills. At the bottom were 4) merchants. All they did was buy and sell things.

Society began to change when the merchant class made money and used it to increase their power, prestige and education level. Some argue that traditional stratification has broken down and been replaced by a new hierarchy with merchant-bureaucrats at the top, farmers are at the bottom, and artisans being replaced by factory workers and migrant labor and scholars being repressed by the government.

Structure and hierarchy have traditionally been very important in all levels of Chinese society. People are expected to observe mores on rank and position and show humility and deference to their superiors. By showing deference one tends to raise their own position in the view of others rather than lower it. See Confucianism.

Today there is some confusion as to what the most important structures and hierarchies are. Tim Doctoroff author of Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer, told the Times of London, “All Chinese people are struggling between a very ambitious goal-oriented rigid social structure and the importance to conform to clearly defined social structures. There’s a need to advance without shattering the crystal plate.”

Confucian Beliefs About Social Relationships

Confucius was not interested in individual salvation or individual rights. What he cared about most was the collective well being of society. He promoted virtues such as courtesy, selflessness, obedience, respect, diligence, communal obligation, working for a common good, social harmony, and empathy. The code of behavior he described was based on a system of harmonious, subordinate relationships based on the notions of filial piety, a well-ordered family, a well-ordered-state and a well-ordered world.

Confucians stress that a person’s worth is determined by public actions. The concept of li defines a set of social relationships and clearly described how people are supposed to behave towards one another. Fealty in Confucian terms takes five forms: 1) subject to ruler, 2) son to father, 3) younger brother to older brother, 4) wife to husband (woman to man), and 5) younger person to older person. Under the concept the li, the dominate person receives respect and obedience from the subordinate person but is by no means a dictator. He is supposed to reciprocate with love, goodwill, support and affection towards the subordinate person.

The Confucian code of subordinate relationships also extended to professions, with scholars at the top. Confucian scholars used to grow their fingernails long to show they didn't do physical labor. Under Confucian systems crimes were often dealt with by ostracism and humiliation rather than physical punishment.

Filial Piety Under Threat in Modern China

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Filial piety
Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century wrote in the New York Times: “Despite the demands of an increasingly fast-paced society, the Confucian idea of filial devotion is deeply embedded in Chinese society. Tradition dictates that children live with their parents and care for them in their old age, a convention that historically provided a safety net. But the custom is rapidly fraying as children struggle with the logistical and financial burdens of caring for their aged parents. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century, New York Times, September 15, 2012]

This has proved particularly challenging in recent years to the huge numbers of only children born after the introduction of strict family-planning rules in the late 1970s. One result, demographers say, is a skyrocketing number of so-called empty nests filled by older people who live alone while their children build their own roosts in distant cities. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, empty nests now account for more than 50 percent of all Chinese households; in some urban areas the figure has reached 70 percent. A 2011 report by the official Xinhua news agency said that nearly half of the 185 million people age 60 and older live apart from their children---a phenomenon unheard of a generation ago. [Ibid]

Like many young Chinese, Chen Xuena, who works for a public relations company in Beijing, said she was torn between chasing a career and tending to her parents in far-off Zhejiang Province. “Every time I visit home I see signs that my parents are getting older, and it really brings me down,” said Ms. Chen, sitting at one of the capital’s coffee bars. “But once you get used to the opportunities and culture of Beijing, it’s hard to leave.”

Such angst will only continue to grow, and not just because China still lacks a meaningful social safety net for the elderly. Demographers estimate that the population of those over 60 will triple before 2050; around the same time, projections show the median age of Chinese will be higher than that of Americans, but with perhaps one-third of the average income, adjusted for the cost of living. [Ibid]

Such figures help explain the sense of urgency that is beginning to grip the governing Communist Party. Last year, in an attempt to ease the impact from so much atomized living, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, proposed a law that obliges sons and daughters to “return home to visit their parents frequently.” The legislation would enable neglected parents to sue their children for infractions, though the vagueness of the law---it does not spell out the frequency of visits---has raised some doubts about its enforceability. [Ibid]

Beijing Updates Morality Tales to Spur Filial Devotion

Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century wrote in the New York Times: “Reading it now, six centuries after Guo Jujing wrote this paean to parental devotion, “The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety” comes off as a collection of scary bedtime stories. There is the woman who cut out her own liver to feed her sick mother, the boy who sat awake shirtless all night to draw mosquitoes away from his slumbering parents and the man who sold himself into servitude to pay for a father’s funeral. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century, New York Times, September 15, 2012]

While the parables are even more familiar to most Chinese than Grimms---Fairy Tales are to Americans---the text remains a mainstay of educational curriculum here---they have understandably lost much of their motivational punch. In an effort to address the book’s glaring obsolescence, the government issued an updated version last month in the hope that the book would encourage more Chinese to turn away from their increasingly self-centered ways and perhaps phone home once in a while. [Ibid]

Compared with its predecessor, the new book brims with down-to-earth suggestions for keeping parents happy in their golden years. Readers are urged to teach them how to surf the Internet, take Mom to a classic film and buy health insurance for retired parents. “Family is the nucleus of society,” intoned Cui Shuhui, the director of the All-China Women’s Federation, which, along with the China National Committee on Aging, published the new guidelines after two years of interviews with older Chinese. “We need family in order to advance Chinese society and improve our economic situation.”

Ridicule of the Updated Morality Tales

Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century wrote in the New York Times: ‘so far, those good intentions appear to have prompted mostly ridicule. But they have also unintentionally kicked up a debate on whether the government, not overextended children, should be looking after China’s ballooning population of retirees. In a fast-aging nation where hundreds of millions of people have left their former homes in the countryside in search of jobs, “The New 24 Paragons of Filial Piety” strikes many as nearly as out of touch with the problems of modern China as the old parables. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century, New York Times, September 15, 2012]

Take, for example, the responsibility to “take one’s parents traveling frequently.” While feasible for successful professionals, the obligation is all but impossible for working people, especially the nation’s roughly 252 million migrant workers, few of whom have ever experienced the joys of leisure travel. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, their numbers are rising 4.4 percent annually, meaning that nearly 11 million rural migrants arrived in Chinese cities last year alone---and most likely left their aging parents behind. [Ibid]

Zhang Yang, a fruit vendor in Beijing, scoffed at the suggestion that he should take his parents on vacation, noting that he rarely stops working or has time to visit them in their hometown in Henan Province, roughly 400 miles south of the capital. “One time I didn’t get to go home for four years,” he said sheepishly. “Business here is good, but I feel guilty for not being with my parents.”

Li Ji, a popular columnist at the state-run Legal Daily newspaper, lashed out at the new guidelines, arguing that they would not be necessary if the government provided better care for its citizens. “If the national health insurance was up to par, children wouldn’t have to worry so much about their parents’ health, and if companies were required to provide a certain number of vacation days, children would be able to go home more often,” he wrote. [Ibid]

“The New 24 Paragons of Filial Piety,” despite its ham-handedness, tries to address the root causes of loneliness. It urges children to throw their parents a birthday party each year and listen attentively to their stories from the past. It even asks that children help widowed parents remarry, a task that some parents found objectionable. “I would be really embarrassed if my son tried to help me remarry,” said Xu Zhihao, a retiree who was sunning himself with friends in a Beijing park on Wednesday. “That’s not part of Chinese tradition.”

Traditional Social Structure in China

Throughout the centuries some 80 to 90 percent of the Chinese population have been farmers. The farmers supported a small number of specialized craftsmen and traders and also an even smaller number of land- and office-holding elite families who ran the society. Although the peasant farmers and their families resembled counterparts in other societies, the traditional Chinese elite, often referred to in English as the gentry, had no peers in other societies. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The national elite, who comprised perhaps 1 percent of China's population, had a number of distinctive features. They were dispersed across the country and often lived in rural areas, where they were the dominant figures on the local scene. Although they held land, which they rented to tenant farmers, they neither possessed large estates like European nobles nor held hereditary titles. They achieved their highest and most prestigious titles by their performance on the central government's triennial civil service examinations. These titles had to be earned by each generation, and since the examinations had strict numerical quotas, competition was fierce. Government officials were selected from those who passed the examinations, which tested for mastery of the Confucian Classics. Elite families, like everyone else in China, practiced partible inheritance, dividing the estate equally among all sons. The combination of partible inheritance and the competition for success in the examinations meant that rates of mobility into and out of the elite were relatively high for a traditional agrarian society. *

The imperial state was staffed by a small civil bureaucracy. Civil officials were directly appointed and paid by the emperor and had to have passed the civil service examinations. Officials, who were supposed to owe their primary loyalty to the emperor, did not serve in their home provinces and were generally assigned to different places for each tour of duty. Although the salary of central officials was low, the positions offered great opportunities for personal enrichment, which was one reason that families competed so fiercely to pass the examinations and then obtain an appointment. For most officials, officeholding was not a lifetime career. They served one or a few tours and then returned to their home districts and families, where their wealth, prestige, and network of official contacts made them dominant figures on the local scene. *

Traditional Social Stratification in China

Traditional thought accepted social stratification as natural and considered most social groups to be organized on hierarchical principles. In the ideal Confucian scheme of social stratification, scholars were at the highest level of society, followed by farmers, then by artisans, with merchants and soldiers in last place. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In society at large, the highest and most prestigious positions were those of political generalists, such as members of the emperor's council or provincial governors. Experts, such as tax specialists or physicians, ranked below the ruling political generalists. Although commerce has been a major element of Chinese life since the early imperial period, and wealthy merchants have been major figures in Chinese cities, Confucianists disparaged merchants. Commercial success never won respect, and wealth based on commerce was subject to official taxes, fees, and even confiscation. Upward mobility by merchants was achieved by cultivating good relations with powerful officials and educating their sons in the hope they might become officials. Although dynasties were founded by military conquest, Confucian ideology derogated military skill. Common soldiers occupied a low position in society and were recruited from its lowest ranks. Chinese civilization, however, includes a significant military tradition, and generals and strategists usually were held in high esteem. *

Most of China's population was composed of peasant farmers, whose basic role in supporting the rulers and the rest of society was recognized as a positive one in Confucian ideology. In practical terms, farming was considered a hard and insecure life and one that was best left if an opportunity was available. In Chinese communities the factors generating prestige were education, abstention from manual labor, wealth expended on the arts and education, a large family with many sons, and community service and acts of charity. Another asset was an extensive personal network that permitted one to grant favors and make introductions and recommendations. There was no sharp line dividing the elite from the masses, and social mobility was possible and common. *

Traditional Stratification and Families in China

Before 1950 the basic units of social stratification and social mobility were families. Although wealthy families were often quite large, with as many as thirty people in three or four generations living together on a common budget, most families contained five or six people. In socioeconomic terms, late traditional China was composed of a large number of small enterprises, perhaps as many as 100 million farms and small businesses. Each was operated by a family, which acted not only as a household but also as a commercial enterprise. The family head also was the trustee of the estate and manager of the family business. Families could own property, such as land or shops, and pass it on to the next generation. [Source: Library of Congress *]

About 80 percent of the population were peasant farmers, and land was the fundamental form of property. Although many peasant families owned no land, large estates were rare by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Peasant families might own all of the land they worked, or own some and rent some from a landowner, or rent all their land. Regardless of the form of tenure, the farm was managed as a unit, and the head of household was free to decide what to plant and how to use the labor of family members. Land could be bought and sold in small parcels, as well as mortgaged and rented in various forms of short-term and long-term contracts. The consequence was that in most villages peasant families occupied different steps on the ladder of stratification; they did not form a uniformly impoverished mass. At any time, peasant families were distinguished by the amount of land that they owned and worked compared with the percentage of their income they paid in rent. Over time, peasant families rose or fell in small steps as they bought land or were forced to sell it. *

Most non-farm enterprises, commercial or craft, were similarly small businesses run by families. The basic units were owned by families, which took a long-term view of their prospects and attempted to shift resources and family personnel from occupation to occupation to adapt to economic circumstances. In all cases, the long-term goal of the head of the family was to ensure the survival and prosperity of the family and to pass the estate along to the next generation. The most common family strategy was to diversify the family's economic activities. Such strategies lay behind the large number of small-scale enterprises that characterized Chinese society before 1950. Farming and landowning were secure but not very profitable. Commerce and money-lending brought in greater returns but also carried greater risks. A successful farm family might invest in a shop or a food-processing business, while a successful restaurant owner might buy farmland, worked by a sharecropping peasant family, as a secure investment. All well-to- do families invested in the education of sons, with the hope of getting at least one son into a government job. The consequence was that it was difficult to draw a class line dividing landlords, merchants, and government workers or officials. *

Social Mobility in Traditional China

Formal education provided the best and most respected avenue of upward mobility, and by the nineteenth century literacy rates in China were high for a traditional peasant society. Chances of receiving a good education were highest for the upper classes in and around coastal cities and lowest for the farmers of the interior. If schooling was not available, there were other avenues of mobility. Rural people could move to cities to seek their fortunes (and in some cases the cities were in Southeast Asia or the Americas). People could go into business, gamble on the market for perishable cash crops, try money-lending on a small scale or, as a long shot, join the army or a bandit group. Late traditional society offered alternate routes to worldly success and a number of ways to change one's position in society; but in all routes except education the chances of failure outweighed those of success. [Source: Library of Congress *]

“In many cases, whether in business or banditry, success or failure depended to a great degree on luck. The combination of population pressure, the low rate of economic growth, natural disasters, and endemic war that afflicted the Chinese population in the first half of the twentieth century meant that many families lost their property, some starved, and almost all faced the probability of misfortune. From the perspective of individuals and individual families, it is likely that from 1850 to 1950 the chances of downward mobility increased and the ability to plan ahead with confidence decreased. *

Rules, Goals and Harmony in China

Following rules is expected of the masses and is seen as putting the needs of the group ahead of the desires of individuals. "The problem of human equality," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, “was not vivid in China. There, where tradition and customs ruled, the best qualities of life were viewed as products of Chinese tradition and customs."

Chinese put a strong emphasis on social harmony and group consensus. Traditional Chinese society was bound together by the two important concepts: 1) an agreement on community responsibilities that everyone in a neighborhood or village was party to; and 2) a method of organizing a community so that everyone helped everyone else with agricultural chores such as planting, weeding, harvesting and winnowing to make sure all these tasks were done efficiently for everyone in the community.

One American educator who has worked extensively in China told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a very organized society, and when they set their mind to go a particular direction, they are able to drive things in that direction.”

There is strong emphasis on working hard together for common goals. One Chinese saying goes: “Endurance can turn a iron bar into a needle.” All one has to do is look at the Great Wall or the Grand Canal to see what this kind of thinking can achieve or look at the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution to see what it can destroy. Today you can see what happens when working hard together for common goals is applied to making money and producing economic growth.

Getting Chinese to work together isn’t always easy. There are a lot of conflicting interests, competition and one upmanship in China. One old Chinese saying goes: “eight departments can’t even cooperate in raising a pig.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Updated May 2018

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